Random Mutations and God

Random Mutations and God

JuliaL, in a comment to my previous post, Don McLeroy and his Big Creationist Tent . I’m going to copy the comment here and reply, because I think it brings up an important point that deserves a post of its own.

Here’s the part that mystifies me:


Consider natural selection of random mutations. If they’re random mutations, they can’t be God-directed, and if they’re naturally selected, you can’t hav, quote, “God-selecteds.”

Is the claim being made that there is no such thing as a mathematically random process, such as the choosing of the winning number in a lottery? Or, is McLeroy saying that a process can indeed be mathematically random, but in some magical fashion then God is incapable of being any part of it? So God is completely excluded from lotteries? And if we want to cut God out of any issue, we need only introduce randomness (like “Russian roulette” with a gun before pulling the trigger), and God is forced to stand by helpless? I’ve seen people pick a Bible verse to read by closing their eyes, letting the Bible fall open, and then putting their finger to the page to pick a random verse to mediatate on. Does this process mean that God is now excluded from the event and must stand around looking incompetent?

As for natural selection, is the claim here that anything selected for/against by nature thereby excludes God from any role? Nature pretty much destroys certain kinds of plants I attempt to put in my yard; the heat, humidity, and alternate drought and flood kills them off. Does installing such plants mean that I have managed to ban God from my yard?

This seems a strange view of God, not as the ground of all being or as the wholeness of which everything else is a part, but as a separate, discrete individual who can be pushed aside through math and nature processes that we all normally acknowledge exist.

The thing that has mystified me for a long time is that so many people seem to view a natural process as something which separates something from design by God. From my theological point of view, the universe exists because God wills it so, therefore everything is designed. Supposing I create a machine that automatically produces some other device. Would that secondary device not be considered my design? God goes one better, and designs and elegant and simple algorithm that produces huge variety. It’s still God.

Intelligent design creationists (IDC) are not satisfied to have God ordain laws and processes. They want God to intervene along the way, and see indications of that design. The Holy Grail of this idea is that one process or system that simply cannot have been produced by the simple combination of variation + natural selection. They keep claiming to have found it, but as knowledge of the evolutionary process advances, ways are discovered. IDC requires a severe deficit in imagination.

The requirement for detectable intervention ties intelligent design to creationism. If that were not the case, they could embrace people like me who believe in God and believe that the universe itself exists by the will of God. That means everything we see is designed at some level or another. I’m not a metaphysical naturalist. But IDCs do not embrace people like me. Why? Because the simple statement that the universe is designed is not their real goal.

Their goal is to prove elements of the Biblical story of creation, specifically that there are “kinds” that cannot produce one another, boundary lines that can only be crossed by special divine intervention. That’s the point of trying to find detectable footprints. It’s not design/non-design so much as it is the detectability of design, and even more specifically the detectability of limits that require divine intervention at particular points.

On this young and old earth creationists can agree, because their understanding of the Genesis story, while not the same, agrees in hearing it as narrative history. They just disagree in the level of symbol involved. They both need divine intervention in a way that should be detectable. (There’s some discussion of this right now because IDCs want to deny part of their roots. This has been discussed recently by Nick Matzke, Ed Brayton, and from the IDC side by Rob Crowther.

Now to the word “random.” That is largely a scare word, since evolution is not, in fact, a random process. Natural selection is quite directed. There are a number of definitions of the word random, but in this case non-mathematicians are generally thinking something like “lacking a definite plan, purpose, or pattern” (Merriam-Webster). Though this is not the mathematical definition, it will work for our purposes.

In A Wonderful Life Gould suggested a thought experiment rolling back the movie of the history of life on earth from the time of the Cambrian explosion onward, and suggested that it might unroll in different ways because random events might occur differently. But there is a view of determinism that would say that everything that occurs is totally caused by previous events, thus if we had sufficient knowledge we could tie every event right back to be big band, down to movements of subatomic particles. With this level of determinism, someone with my view of evolution could claim that God did design not just human beings as such, but me in particular, by the way he “set off the big bang.” Everything would be determined by the arrangement of particles (and whatever) at the moment “cause” came to have any meaning. Thus intelligent design without that identifiable time of intervention.

(For those who want to think more about this, let me link to two series by Peter Kirk at Speaker of Truth. I’m not specifically endorsing everything Peter says, and I gather that he isn’t either, but that’s not because I disagree with any substantial portion. I simply don’t understand the physics well enough for my agreement to make any difference. The important thing is that he is here working with concepts from physics, and relating them to theology and origins, and deals some with the issue of causation. The posts are Kingdom Dynamics Introduction, Beyond Causality, The Boundaries, and The Crunch, followed by The Beginning part 1 and part 2.)

IDCs would like that, however, because it wouldn’t give them their “kinds” with boundaries between them. In the view of some of them, front-loading would come with the creation of the first life, which should have DNA capable of producing everything that happened later.

But there is no necessity that absolute determinism is true. It’s just a possibility. There could be events that are not caused in our sense of the word at all. For example, we have no way to speak sensibly of the “cause” of the big bang. I have had people I regard as reliable tell me that quantum physics shows that the universe is truly deterministic, and others I regard as equally reliable tell me it proves that there is true randomness. I don’t understand their arguments so I cannot comment on who is right. But it’s interesting that it appears to be a debatable issue!

Some other theists who are scientists, especially physicists, see the subatomic realm as a place where God could intervene, for example, to cause mutations at the appropriate moment, without us being able to detect that intervention at all. Again, this wouldn’t make IDCs happy, because they want to find God, and also, for the most part, to prove that he created the world in a way that can be related to Genesis. Don’t ever be deceived by the rhetoric–Genesis will show up sooner or later.

I don’t really understand the how of it at all. I would be satisfied if God simply created the process, and the process produces everything else. I think variation + natural selection is a very powerful process. At the moment I don’t see any example of demonstrated intervention. I would simply say that as a theist I hold that even if the process is random in its input (variation) it is random because that is the way God ordains it to be. That is not a scientific conclusion, however. Science must simply observe whether it is random or not and report.

Finally, I do believe that the IDCs come up with a bizarre idea of God, a God who is more active at some points than others, and one who designed a process to diversify life, but it didn’t work right, so he has to tinker. Somehow they think this is a positive think and work very hard to prove that it happened, at the same time proving, in my view, that God is incompetent. That’s not a conclusion I’d prefer to come to!

One thought on “Random Mutations and God

  1. Thanks for the links to my two series. (Sorry to be slow replying – I have been away.)

    I regret leaving “Kingdom Thermodynamics” unfinished, but I found myself getting in more deeply than I could explain clearly, although I think I know where I was going.

    I do intend to continue “In The Beginning”, as time allows. The angle I am taking there is that God is in control of everything, even events which are truly (not just apparently) random as far as humans can tell (apart from divine revelation), such that the world today is as he planned it without there being any specific divine fingerprints which anyone can discover. Well, this brief description doesn’t account for sin, but that’s a separate issue.

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